Why study History?

History and theory are very closely related. In fact they are extensions of each other. The study of history should help us shape our theory and so affect our practice.

History as a design tool

History can be a very useful design tool. That is why it is taught at architectural schools. A reconstruction of the past can give us a way to predict the possible consequences of our choices in the future. Experience allows us to speculate on the question what would happen if...

 

The practice of architecture, like the practice of law, medicine and science, is intimately bound up with history as a cauldron of collective experience. History helps students understand how buildings work, how forms and geometries come about, how they change, how they function in a society, how they affect the individual, how they work within a framework of other buildings, how similar forms used at different times and in different places can have different meanings and uses.

 

First of all, then, history is there to preserve our memory: the good and the bad, so that we can learn from our reading of the past. In that way it can help us understand why certain forms, spatial arrangements, technological changes and social functions arose under specific social, religious, political, economic, climatic, geographical conditions and history can tells us why certain forms, usages and practices died when they did.

 

All this gives us a useful frame of reference. It allows us to build a model in our mind of the way architecture behaves as it interacts with society and the environment. We can use this frame of reference to refine the generators of our design.

 

In this sense history allows us to reinvent the wheel over and over again, so that we can use that experience in practice. Every student, to some extent, should, if not re-invent the world for him- or herself, at least re-discover its magic in their own way. That is what education is all about: the recreation or rediscovery of the world for ones own purpose. History helps us to put our own narrow experience into a much larger perspective.

 

Discovering and analysing precedents helps us to make appropriate design choices within a specific climatological, geographical, economic, cultural, metaphysical and social context. We can learn from other peoples good fortune and their mistakes. Because we have the ability to compare, we can balance and use the past to provoke thought about the future.

The past is always present in the traces it has left behind and in the very building blocks of the present. To understand the structure of the past will mean we can build on it for the future.

 

So, history helps us in two ways. It helps us in a negative way by preventing us from having to re-invent the wheel when we are out there in practice. Similarly it will prevent us from having to relive our mistakes in ignorance. But it also helps us in a positive way by furnishing us with the evidence of an extraordinary wealth of creativity.

History is about asking the right questions: what, where, when, why and how. History is not just about remembering. Memory has to be put to use in order to become history.

 

As a discipline, history belongs to the foundations of any society; after all it is the depository of our experience. What memory is to the individual, history is to society at large. If we make sure that our history is as truthful as we can make it, then history becomes useful to society as a whole rather than to privileged sections of that society.

 

History is a tool of analysis that can make sense of our experience. And as such it becomes a medium with which to project that experience into the future. It is a tool with which we organise ourselves to achieve our goals effectively. Therefore, history is relevant to the practice of architecture as it allows us to understand why things are the way they are. That understanding will help us forward. But what exactly does understanding mean?